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Somerville community urges state to tear down McGrath Highway overpass

Posted by Matt Byrne  June 1, 2012 12:00 PM

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Community impatience ran into governmental bureaucracy Thursday, when residents and activists rebuffed a state plan to spend two years and millions of dollars to repair the McCarthy Overpass on McGrath Highway just so the state may return later to tear it down.

Over and over, residents and officials asked the Department of Transportation to refrain from spending 23 months and $10.9 million to repair a structure that few in the community want, suggesting instead the state demolish immediately the ribbon of rusted steel and broken concrete that has divided the city since 1955.

"The city's official position is and always has been, take the overpass down," Said Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone. "Take it down yesterday. We're no longer an on- and off-ramp to Boston. We're a city of neighborhoods."

The McCarthy overpass is a 1,700-foot-long section of elevated road that spans Washington Street and the web of interconnected roads below, and connects Somerville to the north with Boston and Cambridge along McGrath Highway, also known as Route 28.

Curtatone and others say a grade-level boulevard would be an economic boon to Brickbottom and the Innerbelt, the last industrial districts that have languished without full economic development or connectivity to the rest of Somerville.

But Department of Transportation officials said that without the temporary repairs to the McCarthy, the roadway would not hold up long enough for planners to navigate the byzantine environmental studies and permitting processes that they said are required to build the grade-level solution that is so widely called for.

"When large sums of money and large numbers of people are going to be impacted, projects need to be studied in certain ways," said Steve Mclaughlin, Department of Transportation project manager for the repair effort. "This process takes years, not weeks or days."

To be more precise, at least ten years, the state said -- eight for planning and three more to demolish and rebuild the new grade-level boulevard. The process includes lengthy environmental studies that would have to be approved by the state and federal government, but citizens and advocates refuted the necessity of those assessment, saying the state is wasting time and money to come around to an obvious solution.

One official who called for faster results was Alderwoman Maryann Heuston, whose Ward 2 borders the roadway.

"We've been waiting far too long," Heuston said. "We need to unlock East Somerville, and this is what will help us to do that."

Even by the state's accounting, the McCarthy overpass, which last underwent repairs in 2008, is in tough shape. Steel support beams that underpin the concrete deck show grapefruit-sized holes; disintegrated concrete reveals rusted internal rebar; and in some places, the structure is coming apart at its seams, leaving gaps in the road where concrete slabs used to connect.

Among the most troublesome and dangerous section is the tunnel, whose walls and deck are disintegrating at a faster rate than in other parts of the structure.

These deficiencies have been meticulously documented through extensive study by state engineers, who say that while the structure is currently safe for traffic, any further deterioration could force authorities to lower the overpass's load rating and thereby push heavy trucks and buses onto smaller side streets.

"We're doing the shortest-term solution so that we can keep the bridge safe, open the public, and functional," said McLaughlin.

One skeptic was Steve Kaiser, a retired mechanical engineer who works with the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership, who said his independent analysis of the state's structural data showed that while repairs buy time, a partial demolition now, coupled with work on the dangerous tunnel section, could satisfy both the community and the state.

In Kaiser's value analysis, he estimated cost per year for each plan versus gains in structural strength, and his findings bear out a different picture than the state's: The most costly option was to perform the state's temporary repair, which he pegged at $458,000 cost per year per ton of load strength added, for up to 10 years. Second was outright replacement of the overpass, at $175,000 per ton per year.

The least costly and most effective, he said, was to compromise, at an annualized cost of only $29,000 per year per ton of added structural strength: Tear down the overpass immediately, repair only the tunnel at a cost of $3 million, and spend the roughly $8 million balance of the repair contract to plan and study the permanent solution of a ground-level boulevard.

At some points in the evening, Somerville planners tasked with studying the future of McGrath -- a process called for in the city's recently finalized SomerVision long-term plan and that has already taken a year -- seemed to have prepared presentations for a skeptical audience, despite the overwhelming consensus in the room for demolition.

When the planners unveiled the decade-long timeline for repairs and replacement, some of more than 125 who gathered let out an audible groan, their sentiment captured by an anonymous voice in the crowd:

"Take it down," the resident shouted. "I'll be dead by then."

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